By Zachary Garris | February 7, 2022
Men used to dress more formally than they do today. This can be seen by looking at older photos of men on airplanes and in the classroom. Yet it is often assumed today that how we dress is of no moral concern and is purely a matter of aesthetic tastes. But is this the case? Or do cultural expectations of attire have roots in something deeper?
While it seems obvious that attire is tied with culture to some extent, this does not mean how we dress within a culture is not a moral question. There is no command in Scripture that says a man must wear a certain type of clothing, but there are still biblical principles involved here. The question of attire falls under that which may be deduced from Scripture “by good and necessary consequence,” and in specific reference to worship settings (“circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church”), we must look to “the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word” (WCF 1.6).
In biblical language, how we dress is a wisdom issue. We as Christians must seek to navigate the world as followers of Christ, applying biblical teaching and the light of nature to our modern circumstances. And there are certainly principles to guide us in what we wear, especially as clothing relates to modesty.
But it is important to make clear that modesty is not just a term about “covering up.” It is that. But modesty is about avoiding indecency — and indecency includes anything that is not appropriate or fitting. In other words, a person can be dressed immodestly and indecently by donning clothing that does not conform to the generally accepted standards for a particular occasion. Modesty at root is about dressing for the occasion.
There is, of course, a difference between male and female modesty, rooted in the physiological differences of the sexes. Teaching on female modesty usually revolves around not showing too much skin and avoiding excessive adornment (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3-4), though these concerns also apply to men. Male modesty, however, generally revolves around formality and propriety (though these also apply to women).
One principle of male modesty is that men should dress like men and not like women. Commenting on the μαλακοὶ (“effeminate,” NASB 1995) in 1 Corinthians 6:9, Calvin says “effeminate persons” include those who are unchaste “by lightness of gesture and apparel, and other allurements.” Calvin elaborates on this point in commenting on the prohibition of transvestism — or, cross-dressing — in Deuteronomy 22:5: “This decree also commends modesty in general, and in it God anticipates the danger, lest… men should degenerate into effeminacy unworthy of their nature. Garments are not in themselves of so much importance; but as it is disgraceful for men to become effeminate… propriety and modesty are prescribed, not only for decency’s sake, but lest one kind of liberty should at length lead to something worse.” Calvin downplays attire somewhat to highlight that effeminate dress can lead to more concerning effeminate behavior. Modest attire guards against effeminacy and is an expression of proper masculinity.
A second principle of modesty is that men should dress for the occasion. There is surely a difference between being in the privacy of our home and being in public. Of course, even the home becomes a public setting when guests come over. There is a proper concern for how others see us. Not every public setting is the same, as there is a major difference between being at the beach and being in a business meeting. Everyone knows you should dress your best when seeking to show respect to a business partner, a judge, or couple celebrating their wedding.
But for some reason, many Christians today want to throw these principles out when it comes to religious functions. Most evangelical churches in America no longer have a discernible standard of attire for worship, and it is typical to see congregants — and sometimes even the preacher — in a t-shirt and jeans! This is even the case for many Reformed churches and churchmen. Many pastors and elders eschew traditional business attire at formal church meetings (such as presbytery and General Assembly). While defenders of more informal styles may say that culture has changed here, we must note that the decline in formal dress in ecclesial settings has not coincided with the decline in formal dress in all other settings. There is still a cultural expectation of dressing formally for important events (weddings, funerals) and formal settings outside the church (offices, courts, legislatures).
It is not my aim here to argue that a man is required to wear a suit to every worship service or presbytery meeting. Rather, I am arguing that we should dress like men and dress for the occasion. Culturally, we have different levels of formality in attire, with common categories being casual, business casual, and formal (among other variations). Casual attire is not fitting for a serious meeting (and it is hard to see how the public worship of God is not a serious occasion). The basic principle is that the more serious or weighty the event, the more formal the attire.
In specifically applying this to office bearers in the church (BCO 24-1), it is good to look at the requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, a passage which includes some principles pertaining to attire. In 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul says that an elder must be “respectable,” using the Greek word κόσμιος (kosmios). Interestingly, the only other use of this word in the New Testament is in the prior chapter for female modesty — “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel” (1 Tim. 2:9). The Greek lexicon BDAG defines κόσμιος as “pertaining to having characteristics or qualities that evoke admiration or delight, an expression of high regard for persons, respectable, honorable.”
Thus, while not an explicit reference to attire in 1 Timothy 3:2, the requirement that an elder be “respectable” applies to attire in that a man should seek to dress in a way that evokes honor and respect from others. Dressing in a way that is considered immature or sloppy according to one’s common cultural standard is certainly not a way to demonstrate respectability. Additionally, Paul says an elder “must have a good reputation with those outside the church” (1 Tim. 3:7). Again, this does not specifically refer to attire, but it has broad application in that we should dress with unbelievers in mind. Dressing well for Sunday worship and other ecclesial gatherings shows we take those events seriously.
So when it comes to men engaged in the work of the church, we should dress like men called by God to engage in such work. There is no biblical mandate to wear a suit every time a man preaches. But it may be unwise to do otherwise if the cultural or social context expects formal attire upon weighty occasions. Formal attire evokes respect, and thus less formal attire could distract hearers from your preaching since they may take you (and your message) less seriously. The same goes for a presbytery meeting and General Assembly. Our attire communicates something to others. Formal wear says we take the occasion seriously and likewise that our message and business should be taken seriously.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1848), 1:208–209.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, trans. Charles W. Bingham (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 3:110.
Zachary Garris is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church in White Rock, NM.